The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2022
50 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2022 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL A Better Workplace Culture in 2022 STATE VP VOICE | BY TOM YAZDGERDI AFSA NEWS Contact: YazdgerdiTK@state.gov | (202) 647-8160 For years, State Department culture has placed a pre- mium on working long hours and tolerated bullies in the workplace as long as they “produce” for their bosses and their bosses’ bosses. Can 2022 be the year that we finally begin to change that? When I arrived at my first Foreign Service post in 1992, I noticed right away that the work culture expected employees to put in more than 40 hours per week and to respond to calls after hours, even if there was no emergency. (Wasn’t that the reason for a duty officer?) As an untenured FSO, you were supposed to be able to choose between overtime or compensatory time, but I found out that overtime was not allowed at my first post—and since it was seen as bad form to request comp time, I didn’t. Most of my fellow junior officers, as we were known at that time, did the same. And so began a long career—which, don’t get me wrong, I have loved—that made me cognizant of these unspoken expectations and their impact on all of us, especially on colleagues with children and other fam- ily responsibilities. I felt a similar uneasi- ness over the course of my career dealing with and watching others deal with bullying bosses. As long as the complaint did not rise to the level of a formal griev- ance or a protected equal employment opportunity (EEO) category complaint, it seemed the department was fine with turning a blind eye to supervisors who yelled at their subordinates or pres- sured them into taking on more work that cut into their private lives, as long as the supervisors themselves had the “correct” work ethic and “produced” for their own supervisors. There were, of course, exceptions to this—bosses who did stand up and pro- tect the work-life balance of their staff—but the general ethos was that this form of bullying was an acceptable way to manage and super- vise, show results and get promoted. A Paradigm Shift for All of Us, Especially Supervi- sors. We now stand at a watershed moment as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to examine our work culture and gives us the opportunity to make the department and its work- force stronger as a result. We can attend more to our private lives, enjoy the flexibility of working a few days per week from home and be just as productive, if not more so, than under the previous work regime and its rigid mentality. And we will likely be a lot healthier, both mentally and physically. It’s time to rethink what it means to be a successful member of the Foreign Ser- vice and what it means to contribute to the mission of the State Department. This holds especially true for supervisors. Of particular importance to entry-level FS members, supervisors must demonstrate the example of work-life balance, not just give it lip service. They also need to model respectful behavior and promptly address instances of bullying. No quarter should be given to supervi- sors who argue that the ends justify the means. Gone should be the days when this was considered acceptable behavior to get the job done. Now we should focus on the process by which we achieve results, not only the results them- selves. Accountability and Recruitment/Retention. For change to happen, we need to hold people accountable for their behav- ior. Supervisors should be assessed on how they con- tribute to a new work culture that puts a premium on promoting a healthy work- life balance, while ensuring productivity and doing the work of the department. Recently, one anonymous member of an FS-related Facebook group posted that he felt intense guilt for disengaging from his bosses after hours but equally intense guilt if he was “on” and thus implicitly pressur- ing his subordinates to be “on” as well. Supervisors need to be held account- able for their own bullying behavior and that of others in their section, office or bureau in a way that is real and meaningful. Changing this behavior and culture will not be easy. But if we do not take steps to humanize our work culture, we risk failing to attract talent or losing the talent that we already have. Other federal agencies and private compa- nies that have committed to a healthy culture will be far more attractive to an emerg- ing workforce that, by and large, does not want to be rewarded for “living to work.” The mantra of the old- school Foreign Service was to “suck it up, buttercup.” That misguided sense of stoicism does not hold in today’s world, if it ever really did. Please let us know what you think at member@afsa. org. Happy New Year! n If we do not take steps to humanize our work culture, we risk failing to attract talent or losing the talent that we already have.